19 August 2020

Heard Any Crimes Lately?

About three years ago (back before retirement and COVID, when time still had meaning) I discovered a very cool service available through my public library.  LIBBY provides access to thousands of ebooks and audiobooks.  Quite possibly your local library offers it or a similar service.  What I want to talk about here are some of the audiobooks I have listened to; specifically examples where the performance by the narrator improved the experience with the books for me.  I have listed the first book in each series.

Joe Ide, IQ.  Narrated by Sullivan Jones.  At the New Author's Breakfast at a Bouchercon each writer had two minutes to explain their new book.  The most memorable performance was by former screenwriter Joe Ide whose entire speech was: "IQ is Sherlock in the hood.  Thank you."  That's what the movie business calls "high concept."

 The IQ series stars Isaiah Quintabe, a brilliant young African-American man in LA who serves as an unofficial private eye.  They are excellent.

The novels have dozens of characters with different accents and vocabularies.  Sullivan Jones makes them come alive.

Alan Bradley,  The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie. Narrated by Jayne Entwhistle.   Flavia de Luce is an eleven year old girl in 1950, the youngest daughter of a landed (but no longer wealthy) family.  She drives her sisters crazy because she is brilliant, curious, inclined to pranks, and obsessed with her chemistry lab, left over from a long dead relative.

Jayne Entwhistle perfectly captures Flavia's gleeful and dangerous enthusiasm - especially when she is describing poisons in loving detail. 

Dorothy L. Sayers.  Whose Body?  Narrated by Ian Carmichael.  I don't think I need to explain who Sayers is.  Carmichael played Lord Peter Wimsey on television and he doesn't so much read these books as perform them.  Delightful.

John Le Carre.  Agent Running in the Field.  Narrated by the author. At age 87 Le Carre has not only provided a new tale of espionage but also gave us his own reading of it.  The hero is an over-the-hill spy, freshly returned from decades of managing agents overseas.  As he is trying to adjust to running a small hatch of not-very-good analysts in London, he  meets Ed, a gruff, antisocial young man who shares his passion for badminton.  We know Ed is going to get tied up in the spy business but don't know how.  This is not one of Le Carre's best, but it has a few moments that are utterly jaw-dropping.

Anthony Horowitz.  The Word is Murder.  Narrated by Rory Kinnear.  Horowitz created Foyle's War and wrote many episodes of Midsomers Murders.  In this series he is the narrator, and gets invited to serve as Watson to Daniel Hawthorne, a truly annoying ex-cop, now serving as a consultant to the police on difficult cases.  The plots are truly mindboggling and Rory Kinnear does a good job of distinguishing between Anthony and Daniel. 

And a few different experiences available from Libby...

Raymond Chandler, the BBC Radio Radio Drama Collection.  Sure, Chandler spent some of his developmental years in Britain, but that's no excuse for us depending on Old Blighty for creating this excellent collection of radio plays based on all seven of the Marlowe novels, plus The Poodle Springs Mystery, which was finished by Robert B. Parker. 

Biggest surprise for me was Playback, which I had never read, because I had heard it was terrible. I enjoyed it more than The High Window.

Toby Stephens stars as Phillip Marlowe.  I assume that, like him, the rest of the cast is British. But, boy, they have the accents perfect.

Black Mask Audio Magazine.  Stories from the classic hardboiled periodical.  Some are read, some are acted out.  Great fun.

And one more I highly recommend, although it is not crime fiction.

Hilary Mantel.  Wolf Hall.  Mantel's trilogy of novels tells the life of Thomas Cromwell, Henry VIII's bag man.   It is a stunning tour de force.  On Libby each of the three books has a different narrator.  I prefer Simon Slater, who did the first. 

18 August 2020

The Rocky Writing Process

As I write this a few days before it appears, I have five full short-story manuscripts atop my desk. This is unusual. A full manuscript is usually only a thorough proofreading away from being finished and submitted, and I rarely let more than a few days pass before that happens.
I completed full drafts of all five stories within the past month, and they remain unfinished due to some small, niggling doubt about each one. I’ve been struggling to determine what it is about each story that suggests it isn’t ready, or I’ve pinpointed the problem but not the solution.
For example, the first story is set in the 1940s, and I glossed over an event late in the story that deserves more than the few sentences I devoted to it. It deserves a complete scene, but to write the scene I need to research train engines of the time period and I need information about a specific train station. So, I am at the moment stymied by lack of research.
Another story is set partially in the 1930s and partially today. The portion set in the 1930s is fine as is; the portion set today reaches an unsatisfying conclusion. I’m uncertain if my lack of satisfaction in the conclusion is because it isn’t properly set up, because it’s poorly written, or because it’s the wrong conclusion.
The other three stories have their own problems: flat characters in what is, essentially, a gimmick story; missing information in a tale-with-a-twist story that would make the twist more satisfying; and a horror story my wife doesn’t “get,” and I can’t tell if the problem is in the story or if Temple—who doesn’t read horror fiction and doesn’t watch horror films—is the wrong audience.
Instead of working to resolve the minor issues with these stories so I can send them out to visit editors, I have, instead, kept plowing forward with the completion of new work. I have several partially written stories—all begun before the world turned upside down—and most of the stories I’ve completed the past several months came from this pile of partials.
I often work this way, with multiple short stories and other writing projects in progress, and I bounce back and forth between them. Already today—it’s pushing four o’clock—I’ve completed a full draft of a story, made progress on a second story, and wrote most of this.
I have a handful of other stories in progress that I touch frequently, sometimes adding only few words or notes about scenes to come or plot points that need to be incorporated. I have another dozen or so that I touch less frequently, and I have hundreds that I haven’t touched in a while. All of these could, and likely will—should I write fast enough or live long enough—become stories that I ultimately finish and submit.
I don’t recommend my process to anyone, and I’ve lately attempted to alter it given how life has changed during the past several months. Early in my writing career, when I juggled family, full-time employment, and all that comes with each of them, I often wrote in short bits of time. For example, I wrote during my lunch hour, and the story I worked on during lunches was rarely the same story I worked on before or after work.
Recently, I’ve had a few day-long blocks of time. At first, I didn’t know how to effectively utilize such large blocks of time. So, my attention bounced from social media to writing to household chores to writing to errand running to writing and I wasn’t accomplishing near as much as I desired.
So, I tried to intentionally structure a few of my days. I ensured that I had no chores or errands, intentionally avoided social media, and planted myself in front of the computer shortly after breakfast. I selected a single story each day and worked on it until I had a full draft or had gone as far as I possibly could. If time remained in the day, I then began work on a second story.
This has worked spectacularly well the few days I’ve been able to structure my days in this way.
On the flip side, I now have five full short-story manuscripts that require something more than a final proofreading pass before heading out the door.
Perhaps I need to select one day and proclaim it as a problem-solving day. Perhaps I’ll structure it much like the writing days I’ve had recently—no errands, no chores, no social media, and at the computer right after breakfast—except that my goal will be to select a full manuscript, wrestle with it until I’ve solved its problems and, if there’s time, do the same with a second story.
Yeah, that’s what I’ll do.

August 1 was a good day. My story “Bone Soup” appeared in the August issue of Mystery Weekly and “Jalapeño Poppers and a Flare Gun,” which I co-authored with Trey R. Barker, was released as the eighth episode of the serial novella anthology series Guns + Tacos.

17 August 2020

Comedy Is Hard

I've often been accused of being funny, except by my former students. I've directed comedy in theater, too, both contemporary (Christopher Durang) and classical (Several Shakespeare including The Merchant of Venice and Twelfth Night), and my stories and novels always include some humor.

A few years ago, someone suggested I add another workshop to my repertoire: writing humor. I hedged. Then I visited libraries, bookstores and the Internet to find books on writing comedy. I found only a few, and none of them helped me.

Drama is easy. Melodrama is easy. Comedy is eff-ing hard.

Comedy comes from two sources. One is the situation, the basis of slapstick humor. Shakespeare's drunks and fools usually followed this tradition, which goes back to the Greek and Roman playwrights (Remember, Will lifted The Comedy of Errors wholesale from Plautus). This often becomes farce, where the characters become puppets in service to the plot.

The other source is more intellectual or verbal. Puns, wordplay and irony replace the pratfalls, and some people appreciate this more than others. If you tell the same joke to ten people, a few will roar, some will chuck, a couple will smile, and at least one will say, "Oh, that's it?"

Like American English, comedy relies on rhythm. Years ago, I attended a one-day workshop on directing comedy, and the instructor stressed "The Machine," the progression and rhythm that make a scene or play "funny." He said if you change the order or any component, you'll kill the joke. I agree. Years ago, my wife played the fussy roommate in the female version of The Odd Couple, and the other actress insisted on adding "uh-huh, oh really" and other ad libs to the famous exchange about "It's not spaghetti, it's linguini." She never got a laugh. Ever. Not one single night.

The only other specific hint I remember about directing comedy came from my directing mentor in grad school: Gorgeous is not funny...unless she slips on a banana peel. 

My first drafts aren't funny. Humor grows out of revision, usually from a character's reaction to the situation, more ironic than slapstick. If it doesn't feel like part of the character and the whole milieu, it doesn't work for me. I try not to reach for it because if it emerges, it's a pleasant surprise for me, too, and that's how punchlines work. They deliver what the audience expects, but not the way they expect it. 

My favorite authors write humor better than I do. Maybe that's one reason I like them. Louise Penny uses twisted literary allusions and puns, usually as responses from the residents of Three Pines, whom we've grown to know and love over the course of her Armand Gamache series. 

Dennis Lehane's irony--karma comes to town--often involves character, too. Don Winslow can use irony, but he can also go slapstick. His recent novella "The San Diego Zoo" builds on an outrageous situation seen through the eyes of a cop who becomes a laughingstock on social media. The opening line is "Nobody knows how the chimp got the revolver," and the story races to the logically absurd conclusion from that premise. Elvis Cole, the PI of many Robert Crais novels, loves self-deprecating throw-aways. 

Several romance authors write great comedy, too. Look at Jennifer Crusie's dialogue, especially late in a book where her characters paraphrase earlier speeches and turn them on their heads.

None of these writers could steal another's joke and make it work in their own stories. Comedy is personal, and that's what makes it so hard.

You really do reveal yourself on the page. 

16 August 2020

Professional Tips – The Deadwords

graphic of the word 'deadword'

Facts and Artifacts

Deadwords, like deadwood, take up space but offer little useful. In the negative space graphic above, your eye thinks it sees a word or two that aren’t there. Deadwords introduce noise, dim and distracting dreck that shouldn’t be there. Authors want to move from empty words to more powerful, robust, descriptive writing.

I find it useful to review deadwords and weak words, those bits that clutter writing and dull the senses. I manage to avoid the usual suspects, e.g, some, very, nice, etc, but not so well at others appearing on recent lists: as, like, then, and so on. My bad habits need reminders. Professional colleagues know these tips, but beginning writers might find some of the following useful.

As mentioned before, I know no other crime writers in Central Florida– most are too sensible to congregate in a coronavirus hotspot. Without fellow mystery enthusiasts, I exchange editing with local romance writers. (Hi, Haboob and Sharon.) Whew! I bet my instruction in anatomy is more fun than most mystery authors.

Romancing the Own

Haboob drew my attention to a word not in the list below, ‘own’, as in ‘my own writing’. I used it everywhere– his own, her own, their own instead of simple his, hers, and theirs. In ordinary conversation, I seem to use it as an intensive, an unnecessary one. While that guy Shakespeare got away with, “To thine own self be true,” ‘own’ sucks the lifeblood out of my sentences.

In turn, I found the words ‘breath’ and ‘breathe’ cropping up far too often in the ladies’ romance works. They have good reason– the thesaurus suffers from a paucity of alternative non-technical words. Consider:
She breathed in his scent. Her breath stopped when his fingertips traced her bare skin.
Other than the words ‘pant’ and ‘wheeze’ (Feel the romance!) what substitutes can they use?
She aspirated into her lungs the molecules of his scent. Her inhalation and exhalation respiration terminated when…
Nahh… What’s a girl writer to do? (Leave brilliant suggestions in the comments so I can look like a genius at the next editing session.)

In the following list, I’m not including verbal tics and the clichés in current conversations, such as store clerk acknowledgements, “Perfect,” instead of “Thank you.”

be/is/are/was/were/will be
down/up on/in
(have) got
(a) lot
of course
one of
start/begin to
used to


Many words made the list because they’re weak or indefinite. Further to this…
Down/Up, on/in/into
This refers to extraneous coupling of prepositions. “She climbed up into the attic before descending down into the depths of the basement.” Simply: “She climbed into the attic before descending into the depths of the basement.”
Quite, rather
Victoria and Edwardian literature dominated our home library, so both ‘quite’ and ‘rather’ sound normal to my ears, but virtually no one else’s. *delete*
See, saw, look, think, feel
“When she began to look at some of his writing, she felt certain words could weaken sentences, but she couldn’s see how to find a solution.” Simply: “When she looked at his writing, certain words weakened sentences, but she couldn’s find a solution.”
It/there, is/was/were/will be
“There are many examples in literature,” can be reworded “Examples abound in literature.” Jane Austen came up with the cleverest opening line in romance literature: “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” She pulled it off. Me, I should stick to basics.
Shakespeare, Jane Austen… who knew where this was headed! Colorful writing… did we achieve it?

graphic of the word 'word'

John Floyd would be proud of a SleuthSayer coining a compound— ‘deadword’.

15 August 2020

"Just Shoot Anywhere," Tom Said Aimlessly

A little background, here.  A month or two ago, some writer friends and I were having an e-discussion about literary style--which I consider to be grammar, punctuation, spelling, capitalization, sentence and paragraph structure, word choice and usage, etc. The nuts-and-bolts of writing.

During these conversations, we wound up talking a bit about adverbs. (Writers always do.) And anytime you talk about adverbs and their overuse, someone mentions Swifties. Which took us down a whole nother path.

Then, a few weeks after that, Elizabeth Zelvin wrote an interesting SleuthSayers column about adverbs, and in the comments section afterward I mentioned to her the fact that I was thinking about doing an SS post specifically about Swifties. She seconded that idea, and--be careful what you wish for, Liz--here it is.

The term Swifty, as you probably know, comes from the popular series of books starring teenaged action-adventure hero Tom Swift, which always seemed to include passages like "Here I come," Tom shouted bravely, or "Dad helped me with my project," Tom admitted modestly. Eventually good old Tom, despite his bravery and modesty, became not only a hero but something of a literary oddity because of that style of writing, and readers began poking fun at all those pesky and repetitive adverbs. It probably began with "We must hurry," Tom said swiftly, or something like that, and soon folks were coming up with goofy phrases like "Let's visit the tombs," Tom said cryptically
and "I like modern art," Tom said abstractly. By definition, a Tom Swifty is a sentence linked by some kind of pun to the manner in which it is attributed.

Here's a long list of Swifties I put together, about half of them from combing the Internet and about half from my own not-so-swift brain. I warn you, this kind of thing can get old pretty fast, and although some of these are clever, others are just silly, and some of them you've probably heard or seen before. But I think all of 'em are fun. The ones I like the most are the ones with double meanings and a lot of wordplay. Also, I should mention that Swifties don't have to use adverbs. Whatever generally follows the format and is funny, or quirky, is fair game.

I kept inventing more of them and finding more that I wanted to include, but after considerable frustration I narrowed the list down (??) to 75. By the way, I tried to start with the worst first, so don't bail out too soon. Here we go:

"Stop that horse!" Tom cried woefully.

"Parsley, sage, and rosemary," Tom said timelessly.

"I got kicked out of China!" Tom said, disoriented.

"I'm tired of smiling," moaned Lisa.

"I'll dig another ditch around the castle," Tom said remotely.

"I slipped on the hill to Hogwarts," said J. K., rolling. 

"I invented the Internet," Tom said allegorically. 

"Bring me my soup," said Reese, witherspoon.

"Wasn't that Elvis I saw at the party?" Tom Enquired.           

"I make table tops," Tom said counterproductively.

"I want to sketch Goldwater again," said Drew Barrymore.

"I never get to play the friend," said Willem, dafoe.

"For whom is the bell?" Tom extolled.

"Go on in, I'll just sit here and watch," Peter said benchley.

"I have no flowers," Tom said lackadaisically.

"Don't let me drown in Egypt!" Tom said, in denial.

"3.1416," Tom said piously.

"Shaken, not stirred," said Sean and Roger, bonding.

"I can see right through my father," Tom said transparently.

"Damn, I've struck oil!" Tom gushed crudely. 

"I thought you were Madonna," said the lady, gaga.

"To split infinitives no man has split before," Tom boldly said.

"I must find Moby Dick," Ahab wailed.

"This too shall pass," Tom said constipatedly.

"Dorothy, if you go to Oz again, I'm going with you," Em barked.

"I hate this food," Tom said, whining and dining.

"I told you I'm not fonda this script," Hank said, madigan.

"I can't believe I ate the whole pineapple," Tom said dolefully.

"That doesn't look like an evergreen," Tom opined.

"It's better to steal things together," Tom corroborated.

"I left my car in Phoenix," Tom said, Joaquin.

"I can't, I can't," Tom recanted.

"I'm marryin' Marian," said Robin, robbin'.

"That grizzly is climbing the tree after me," Tom said overbearingly.

"I like movies Down Under," Tom said quiggly.

"Honey, put on that see-through thing," Tom said negligently.

"I left the Xena the crime," said Lucy lawlessly.

"I collided with my bed," Tom said rambunctiously.

"I stepped on Harriet Beecher's toe," said Uncle Tom, gabbin'.

"This girl is gone," said Gillian, fleein'.

"Someone stole my movie camera!" Tom bellowed and howled.

"I play a drunk in this movie," said Hugo, weaving.

"I'm sailing with Noah," said Alan, arkin'.

"That's a big shark," Tom said superficially.    

"What a wascally wabbit," Tom said, befuddled.

"She set my car on fire and left me," Burt said, smoky and abandoned.

"No more pastries for me," Tom de-eclaired.

"Practice, practice," said Isaac sternly.

"I'm rereading the second Gospel," Tom remarked.

"We don't have a home-run hitter," Tom said ruthlessly.

"I make dark movies," Shyamalan said nightly.

"That was a tasty hen," said the Roman, gladiator.

"Charles should shorten his name," Tom chuckled.

"Look at that monster's sandals," Tom said, in a thing-thong voice.

"I know I'm going to hit another bad drive," Tom forewarned.

"I'm a singer," said Taylor swiftly.

"Call me Hot Lips," said Loretta switly.

"I will not finish in fifth place," Tom held forth.

"Call me Fitz," F. said, scott free.

"I'm sick of this lisp," Tom said thickly.

"I'll probably do a test drive before the race," Tom prezoomed. 

"My car's in the shop," said Christopher, walken.

"I'm going to see Elijah," said Joanne, woodward.

"I'm staying right here," said William, holden.

"I've already left," said Faye, dunaway.

"Emily's put on weight," Tom said emphatically.

"Did you steal that sunscreen?" Tom demanded, in a copper tone.

"It's the bawdiest house on the prairie," said Laura Ingalls, wilder.

"That's the last time I pet a lion," Tom said offhandedly.

"I'll think about that tomorrow," Scarlett said vivienleigh.

"An African American woman beat me at tennis," Tom said serenely.

"I'm a scientologist," Tom said, cruising.

"Too bad I can't castle now," Tom said, in Czech.

"I need a man," Eve said adamantly.

"This is mutiny!" Tom said bountifully.

If you're still with me, and if that's not enough . . . the following are my Top Twenty Favorites. Again, some of these I dreamed up in weak moments and others I lifted swiftly from the Web:

"I didn't know I got airsick," Tom said, heaving it aloft.

"Who's Victor Hugo?" asked Les miserably.

"I saw a mockingbird peck Gregory," Tom said harperly. 

"Look at those pasties twirl," Tom said fastidiously.

"I punched him in the stomach three times," Tom said triumphantly.

"Last night I dreamed I went to the movies," Laura said manderley.

"You can be my guest host," said Ellen, to begeneres.

"I like the Venus de Milo," Tom said disarmingly.

"What's that in the punchbowl?" Tom said, deterred.

"Y'all, I'm leavin'," said Dolly, partin'.

"I didn't do anything!" Adam cried fruitlessly.

"I dropped the toothpaste," Tom said, crestfallen.

"I ate two cans of American beans," said Vladimir, putin.

"Arghhhhh," Dracula said, painstakingly. 

"I'm having an affair with my gamekeeper," said the lady chattily.

"Whiskey gives me gas," Doc Holliday said, with an earp. 

"About hot dogs, my dear, I don't give a damn," Tom said frankly.

"One out of ten bottoms is too big for an airplane seat," Tom said asininely.

"We didn't inhale," Bill and Hillary announced jointly.

"These aren't the droids you're looking for," Tom said forcefully.

Okay, so I never grew up. What can I tell you?

("Believe me, you don't want to read the hundreds I left out," John said, listlessly.)

Now . . . what are your favorite Swifties?

See you next time.

14 August 2020

I Miss My Summers With Mr. Poe

“Whenever I go back to Charleston, I think of Poe,” Pat Conroy’s narrator says in the opening to The Lords of Discipline, and I sorta, kinda know how Will McLean feels. Edgar Allan Poe was a fellow who was constantly on the move—evading creditors, chasing gainful employment, trying to get his sorry ass paid—but he doesn’t immediately spring to mind whenever I am in cities like Boston, New York, Philadelphia, or Baltimore.

But on those hot, humid summer days when Denise and I have escaped to the South Carolina beaches which are closest to our home in Western North Carolina, I cannot help think of Poe. He was barely 19 years old when he signed up for a five-year enlistment in the army, and ended up transferred from Boston to Fort Moultrie, on the very tip of Sullivan’s Island, South Carolina. The fort was built in 1776 to defend Charleston from British attack, and wasn’t decommissioned until 1960, 184 years later. Moultrie is famous for being built out of felled palmetto trees (South Carolina’s beloved state tree). Those truncated trunks were so spongy that British cannonballs bounced right off ‘em.

My pet whelk, Lawrence.

Poe was on Sullivan’s for all of 13 months, from 1827 to 1828, before finagling a way out of his five-year commitment to attend West Point. At Moultrie he worked as a clerk. They needed a man who could read and write, and that was certainly our boy Eddie’s wheelhouse. Though he managed to rise in rank from a private to a regimental sergeant major, the highest post a non-com could attain, he never answered to his real name. See, while in the army, he called himself Edgar A. Perry. By one biographer’s estimation, it was his fifth such alias, donned to ditch creditors he’d left behind in Richmond (where he’d gambled away $2,000 he didn’t have) and Boston (where he’d just self-published his first book of poems), and heaven knows where else.

Boat-tailed grackle.
Lovely, iridescent, thieving birds that I hope to see Nevermore.

Years later, the time he spent in the Charleston area blossomed into three different stories. The most famous of these three pieces—and the most celebrated in his lifetime—was “The Gold Bug,” first published in three installments in 1843. It’s often lumped in with his detective stories because the main character treats us to feats of ratiocination, but don’t get hung up on that. It’s a buried treasure/secret code story, complete with long discussions of alphabetic frequencies, references to Captain Kidd’s gold, a mysterious gold-winged beetle, and a Black sidekick who speaks in what today reads as racially offensive dialect.

In 1840, while an editor at Alexander’s Weekly Messenger in Philadelphia, Poe challenged readers to stump him by submitting their best cryptograms to the paper. Cryptographic puzzles were a hot genre at the time. He promised to decode each and every one, no matter the difficulty. Of course, you’d have to keep buying the paper to see if the editor picked your code, and if he had been able to “unlock” it. Week after week, Poe always did. Either he was a genius, or he banked on the fact that most semi-literate Americans of the 1840s were only capable of one type of code: the substitution cipher of the A=1, B=2 variety. “I have lost, in time, which to me is money, more than a thousand dollars in solving ciphers,” he would later gripe.

In the story, he describes Sullivan’s Island this way:
“This island is a very singular one. It consists of little else than the sea sand, and is about three miles long. Its breadth at no point exceeds a quarter of a mile. It is separated from the mainland by a scarcely perceptible creek, oozing its way through a wilderness of reeds and slime, a favorite resort of the marsh-hen... 
Near the western extremity, where Fort Moultrie stands, and where are some miserable frame buildings, tenanted, during summer, by the fugitives from Charleston dust and fever, may be found, indeed, the bristly palmetto; but the whole island, with the exception of this western point, and a line of hard, white beach on the sea-coast, is covered with a dense undergrowth of the sweet myrtle so much prized by the horticulturists of England.”
“The Gold Bug” was insanely huge in its day. The Dollar Newspaper paid Poe $100 ($3,400 in 2020 dollars) for the piece, the most he likely ever made from any of his stories. The tale was printed at least five times by the paper, was spun off into a terrible play, sparked a quickie pamphlet of Poe tales, and launched its author on a brief speaking career. Alas, pirated versions sold 300,000 copies—none of which profited Poe a cent. Because of course they wouldn’t. Our Eddie had a date to keep with poverty, misery, and the gutter.

Modern Sullivan’s Island is pristine, pricey, and popular with beach-trekking fugitives from nearby Charleston, Mount Pleasant, and from anywhere up and down the East Coast, really. Nearby Gold Bug Island is the site of fancy lowcountry weddings. Beachfront property sells in the millions. Fort Moultrie is a National Historical Park whose gift shop sells Poe paperbacks and tedious nonfiction about the outpost’s strangest literary resident. Summer parking on “SI” is near impossible, but maybe you’ll get lucky and get to park your rental car or golf cart on Goldbug Avenue, or Raven Drive, or the main drag, Poe Avenue.

You might be moved to browse the books at the Edgar Allan Poe Branch of the Charleston County Library, housed in a four-gun military battery that dates to the Spanish-American War. Perhaps you will buy your sweetheart something shiny at the jewelry store called Goldbug. Or else you will wait until they call your name and seat you inside or on the sunny porch of Poe’s Tavern, on Middle Street, where the walls are decorated with the most massive collection of Poe art, movie posters, and old magazine ads imaginable. (Who knew that the cousins behind Ellery Queen did Poe-centric ads for Ballantine Ale back in the day?) The tavern’s owners operate two additional locations in Wrightsville Beach, North Carolina, and Atlantic Beach, Florida.

Hark! Methinks I hear the clogging of my tell-tale heart!

There are no fewer than 10 burger or chicken sandwich varieties on the menu, ranging from the Raven to the Gold Bug, the Gold Bug Plus, the Pit & Pendulum, the Amontillado, the Annabel Lee, the Hop Frog, the Black Cat, and the Sleeper. I usually go with the Tell-Tale Heart: a big-ass burger with a fried egg, bacon, and cheddar. I wash it down with a Poe lager, and we do not depart those shores until I have bought yet another Poe’s Tavern T-shirt. What does it say about me that most of my clothing these days has originated in bars? Perhaps Poe is not the only one destined for the gutter. But, ahem, I digress.

The only Edgar I
ll ever really need.

If Poe saw his little sand spit today, and beheld his twitchy face painted onto the bricks above the fireplace in the tavern, he would probably threaten a lawsuit—for slander, libel, copyright infringement—as was his wont. In distant realms now, he probably confers daily with recently departed licensing attorneys.

Perhaps some summer when our own hideous bug becomes less horrific, I will meet you all on Eddie’s not-so-forgotten island. Until then, I leave you with a touch of Conroy’s poetry on the subject. The Lords of Discipline passage concludes thusly:
“I like to think of [Poe] walking the streets of Charleston as I walked them, and it pleases me to think that the city watched him, felt the shimmer of his madness and genius in his slouching promenades along Meeting Street. I like to think of the city shaping this agitated, misplaced soldier, keening his passion for shade, trimming the soft edges of his nightmare, harshening his poisons and his metaphors, deepening his intimacy with the sunless wastes that issued forth from his kingdom of nightmare in blazing islands, still inchoate and unformed, of the English language.”

* * *

I’ve been on a Poe kick recently because one of his longtime editors, the self-described editress of Godey’s Lady’s Book, Sarah Josepha Hale, is the subject (along with the Civil War, Lincoln, and the creation of the Thanksgiving holiday) of my wife’s next book.

The book doesn’t pub until November, but Dutton just released the cover this week. In the months to come, I’ll share more about what I’ve learned about Mrs. Hale’s strangest contributor.

See you all in three weeks! Until then, you can find out more at Denise’s website.

13 August 2020

Some Things Will Give You Nightmares

Last week was the 75th anniversary of the United States' atomic bombing of Hiroshima on August 6, 1945, 8:15 AM. (Nagasaki was bombed August 9, 1945 at 11:01 AM.) I'm not going into the whole history of how those two cities were chosen to be the first and only cities ever to be nuked, nor why no demonstration bomb or warning was given, nor how, even after Nagasaki, Japan's war council still wanted to continue fighting the war. (It wasn't until the Emperor announced that, as long as kokutai - which approximately means Japanese sovereignty - was recognized, he was going to surrender to the Allies, that the war council was forced to acceptance. Sort of.)

But what I want to talk about is the power of the written word.

Back when I taught History of Japan classes (Ancient in the fall, Modern in the spring), when we got to WW2, I had them read John Hersey's Hiroshima and showed them Frank Capra's short film Know Your Enemy: Japan. You can watch it too, below.

The New Yorker has put the magazine version of Hiroshima (originally published August 24, 1946, and it was the entire magazine) available for free online HERE.

A photograph of a walking figure and dead trees

After watching the movie in class and reading the book, they had to write reports analyzing both as propaganda and/or journalism. And then we discussed it all in class.

Couple of things: they found Frank Capra's propaganda techniques pretty funny and pretty crude. Most of them almost always ignored the fact that John Hersey chose as his protagonists those who Americans would be able to relate to.

"A hundred thousand people were killed by the atomic bomb, and these six were among the survivors. They still wonder why they lived when so many others died." - Hiroshima, p. 2

MY NOTE: If that sounds similar to the opening line of Thornton Wilder's 1929 The Bridge of San Luis Rey: “On Friday noon, July the twentieth, 1714, the finest bridge in all Peru broke and precipitated five travelers into the gulf below.” - it should. Hersey cited it as a direct inspiration for his Hiroshima.
Anyway, the six characters are:
  • Mrs. Nakamura - widow raising children.
  • Dr. Terufumi Sasaki - dedicated physician, very Westernized.
  • Father Wilhelm Kleinsorge - German Jesuit priest living in Hiroshima.
  • Toshiko Sasaki - Catholic - who is abandoned by her fiancé after being left crippled, and becomes a nun with the Society of the Helpers of Holy Souls.
  • Dr. Masakazu Fujii - self-absorbed, worldly.
  • Pastor Kiyoshi Tanimoto - Methodist pastor who loves America.
I mean, really, 3 Christians? Japan is at most 2.3% Christian, and the majority are Shinto and/or Buddhist. One foreigner? Two doctors? Mrs. Nakamura is about the only "typical Japanese" in the book. Think that might be on purpose?

Anyway. To move on to what struck me, year after year. The students, as I say, found Capra's movie crude and even funny. The visuals - piles of dead babies, flamethrowers used on living people, etc. - didn't bother them a bit. In fact, most of them didn't even remember those. But they found Hiroshima harrowing. I always had someone who said, "that scene in the [___] gave me nightmares." And a lot of heads nodding in agreement.

This shouldn't be surprising.

"An average American youth will witness 200,000 violent acts on television before age 18. Violence is often considerable, even in programs not advertised as violent. Overall, weapons appear on prime time television an average of nine times each hour.19 An estimated 54 percent of American children can watch this programming from the privacy of their own bedrooms."

Volume I: summary report of the American Psychological Association Commission on Violence and Youth. 1993.

I'd say it's gone up since then.

Anyway, they'd been jaded. They've seen dead babies before; Grand Theft Auto and other video games provide explicit ways of tearing off people's heads, disembowling them, etc.

But words are still effective. If the writing is good. And Hersey's is very good. What scene affected the students most? Depended on the student. The wounded in the river; Father Kleinsorge wandering around with pieces of glass in his neck and back; the burns; the bodies; the vomiting; the polluted river; the skin… They had nightmares.

It novel cover

That's what writing is all about, isn't it? Making someone see it - whatever "it" is - in their minds.

If you can do that, they'll never be able to forget. We've all read scenes like that. We've all - I hope - written at least one scene like that.

Go, and write some more.

12 August 2020


Mark Twain's essay, 'Fenimore Cooper's Literary Offenses,' is one of the more definitive take-downs, rude, exacting, and murderously funny. Twain's subject was always America, the American narrative and the American imagination. Cooper, for all his faults, is clearly the first American novelist. An infelicitous writer he may be, but he's more or less trying to invent a New World literature, and in this sense, we wouldn't have Twain if Cooper hadn't ploughed the ground beforehand. Twain means what he says about Cooper's stylistic clunkers ("use the right word, not its second cousin"), and certainly there's a generational difference, Cooper an inflated literary monument who's fallen out of fashion, Twain the more spirited and energetic voice, but Twain's real quarrel seems to be with the tradition of Romantic literature itself. Cooper's themes are vigorous, but his execution is lazy, and generic conventions sand off the rough edges. Twain argues for a greater muscularity.

Cooper's dates are 1789 to 1851. Sir Walter Scott's are 1771 to 1832. They're almost contemporaries. And you can see similarities, their discursiveness on the one hand, and too many easy outs on the other - what you might call the With-One-Gigantic-Leap school of hairbreadth escapes. (In all fairness, Scott is a much livelier and more inventive writer than Cooper; credit where credit is due.) I'm also bringing up Scott because Twain's got a score to settle with him, too. Twain wrote Life on the Mississippi some years after the fact, and although he has a soft spot for the river and its steamboat culture, he's not at all nostalgic for the slave economy of the prewar South, and he puts the blame for the elegiac folderol of the Lost Cause squarely on Walter Scott. Nor does he mean it as metaphor. Twain says expressly that the sentimental goop in Scott's romances - in particular Bonnie Prince Charlie and the failed Stuart uprising of 1745 - leads not only into the failed enterprise of Secession, but that it influences the historically revisionist nonsense that the slave states were some kind of agrarian Eden, unsullied by grasping capital and crude industrial instincts, a benevolent plantation economy, where the darkies of some mythic bygone age were happy to know their place.

Twain has no patience with this crap at all. Remember that he was born in Missouri twenty-five years before the Civil War, and was no stranger to slavery as a commonplace of everyday life. Twain seems to be the first American writer to integrate slavery (no pun intended) into the fabric of his fiction. I don't mean to scant Harriet Beecher Stowe, but Uncle Tom's Cabin is agitprop. It was enormously successful, at the time second in sales only to the Bible, but let's be honest, it's not seriously coherent, or anything like realistic. It rings every phony bell. If we take Twain's critical yardstick as a useful measure, Uncle Tom's Cabin is flabby, and Huckleberry Finn is muscular. Twain represents slavery as a constant in the social dynamic, it's simply there. Harriet Stowe preaches. Twain is more subversive. If slavery is the lie at the heart of America, the original sin, Twain disinherits our creation myth. This country wasn't founded on the altar of liberty, he tells us, it was established with a crime.

Huckleberry Finn is celebrated for its vivid invention: Miss Watson, a tolerable slim old maid, Moses and the Bullrushers, praying for fishhooks; Huck's escape from his father, his deceptions, disguises, and improvisations; the long, somnolent days adrift on the river; the abandoned boat, and the House of Death; the Grangerford feud, easily the single most terrifying episode of the book; the killing of Boggs, and the public shaming of the lynch mob; the horrifying vigilante violence that overtakes the Duke and the King; even its farcical ending, the over-elaborate plot to free Jim. What knits it all together, through its eventfulness and Quixotic structure, the shifting landscape of shore and water, is Huck's shifting internal landscape, his moral antagonisms. Jim is clearly human, Huck sees him as a person; but Jim is chattel, he belongs to somebody else. There's a moment when Jim talks about trying to rescue his wife and children from their new owner, and Huck is scandalized. Jim's talking about doing an injury to a man Huck doesn't even know - this is how Huck puts it to himself - stealing another man's property. The irony passes without being labored. Another example is that that Duke and the King can trade Jim off as a fugitive (he is, of course, having run away from Miss Watson), but it doesn't matter whether Jim is a particular fugitive, on a wanted poster. The fact that he's black, and on the loose, and nobody lays claim to him, is enough. He's guilty by virtue of who he is. Once they miss the confluence of the Mississippi and the Ohio at Cairo, the tip of Illinois, they're drifting into the Deep South. Kentucky, Tennessee, Arkansas. Jim's exposure is greater, his hope of rescue that much less. The comedy begins to sink, and the inevitable weight of despair settles on Huck's shoulders, a long-held, guilty secret.

For all that I recognize Huckleberry Finn as a great book - I agree with Hemingway, among others, that it is in fact the Great American Novel - Huckleberry Finn is not Twain's closing argument about slavery. That book would be Pudd'nhead Wilson, a novel Twain began as slapstick, or farce, but which descends into utter darkness, a bottomless sinkhole of cruelty and shame.
Pudd'nhead Wilson is a murder mystery, and it turns on themes of doubling. The two Italian twins, who appear to be working a parapsychology con, and the two boys switched at birth, Tom Driscoll and Valet de Chambre. The resolution depends on fingerprinting, very much a novelty at the time of the action, the mid-1800's. (Twain was fascinated by technology. A picture shows him in Nikola Tesla's lab.) By his own report, Twain started out with a comic premise. but the social savagery crowded out social satire, and the unresolved tensions of race, privilege, and clan loyalties are redeemed in brute violence.

The peculiar institution, a coinage of John C. Calhoun's, had by the 1880's become completely racialized, an American refinement. The practice of indentured servitude, common in colonial times, was by definition a term of indenture with a set expiration date or a buy-out price. But slavery was an inherited station; you were born into it, and would die as property. Your children, no less, were livestock. None of slavery's advocates made a secret of its racial foundation, and of course breeding was encouraged - slaves were a cash crop. The flip side of this, and generally accepted, was that slave women were used for sex by their white owners, and they got pregnant, and these children were born slaves, too. The high-yaller gal was appreciated for having her more African characteristics diluted.
By the time we get to Pudd'nhead Wilson - to clarify, Twain wrote the book in the 1890's, but the story takes place some fifty years earlier, before the Civil War - these racial norms are well established. Roxana, owned by the Driscolls, is one-sixteenth black, and nursemaid to Thomas Driscoll. Her boy Chambers has a white father (possibly Percy Driscoll, her master), and he's but one-thirty-second black, which still condemns him to slavery. He looks white; in fact, Chambers is almost indistinguishable from Tom, but born on the wrong side of the blanket. Roxy exchanges the babies. Her son grows up as heir to the Driscoll fortune, and Driscoll's son grows up in the slave quarters - that hint of the tarbrush is enough. Later in the story, when Roxy explains his clouded birth to her grown son, masquerading as Tom, and threatens to expose him, he eliminates the threat by selling his mother downriver to the Delta cotton fields. Nothing if not resourceful, Tom murders his uncle, and frames one of the visiting Italian twins for it. In the end, he's too clever by half, and the pretense unravels. The false Tom is himself sold on the auction block. The real Tom, raised as the slave Chambers, is restored to his family legacy, but he's neither fish nor fowl: he loses the one tribe he knows, the slave community, and can't assimilate as a white slave-holder. The well has been poisoned.

Twain seems to suggest that the false Tom is corrupted by privilege,  although he doesn't quite come down on one side or the other, nature or nurture. In the story, race is destiny, but not in the sense that one boy has a sunny outlook because he's secretly white, and the other has a temperament tainted by residual blackness. Some of their character can only be hard-wired, some is learned behavior. Perhaps the slave Tom has a native innocence, or a talent for it, and Chambers, the spoiled child, enlarges into bullyhood. Twain is ambiguous on this score. He's unambiguous in saying that circumstance itself - the iron conventions, the conditions of life, the immobility - creates a fatal lack of choice. Tom and Chambers are bound to one another by blood debt; both of them are trapped.
The longer shadow cast by Pudd'nhead Wilson is historical, the dark bruise of our national grief, spreading underneath the skin. The most pernicious aspect of historical denial is selective memory, and the evasion of responsibility. Glamorizing the South in defeat, and pretending race wasn't at issue, allowed for lynch law and Jim Crow, disguised as state sovereignty. It may have been coded language, but it was unapologetic white supremacy.

Not addressing the buried past - the unburied past, as it happens - or underlying social frictions, stresses any political system. It's generally accepted that the unequal terms imposed on Germany at Versailles in 1919 led to economic ruin and the rise of Hitler. Weimar was too weak to contain the tensions between the Red factions and the revanchist Right that played out across Europe. Much the same happened after the second war, the sentiment that the German Army was stabbed in the back again, even though this time they didn't have any Jews left to blame it on.
We see something familiar, then, in the grievance politics of our dislocated present. The vocabulary is different, to a degree, but the clamor, the intemperance, the hardening of the arteries, echoes the slave state sympathies of John C. Calhoun and his uncompromising belligerence. We seem ready to revisit the Lost Cause, not through the rosy lens of Gone with the Wind, but with a constipated whiner who got pushed off the swings. "George Porgie, pudding and pie, kissed the girls and made them cry. When the boys came out to play, Georgie Porgie ran away."
The question is ownership. Who controls the narrative? If we surrender the narrative, somebody else tells the story. Twain's lesson is that we can recover it, but we have to trust an unreliable narrator, a device as old as Homer. So we listen to our hearts. The rest is noise.

11 August 2020

Black Cat Mystery & Science Fiction Ebook Club

If you like reading crime short stories, and let's face it, you wouldn't be a regular SleuthSayers reader if you didn't, then you should know about Black Cat Mystery & Science Fiction Ebook Club. An offering of Wildside Press--which publishes a lot of mystery anthologies, including the Malice Domestic anthologies since their revival a few years ago and this year's upcoming Bouchercon anthology--the ebook club is nearing its third anniversary. It's like a book-of-the-month club, but weekly and with electronic short stories (and some novellas), mostly reprints. The ebook club is different from Black Cat Mystery Magazine, which is edited by my fellow SleuthSayer Michael Bracken, though the quarterly magazine is sometimes included as a weekly offering to the ebook club members.
Every week, paid club members get an email telling them about the seven (sometimes more) stories they can download that week in mobi or epub versions. Three or four are crime/mystery stories, the rest are science fiction. Unpaid club members get the same weekly email giving them access to one free story, a specific one each week. All of the ebook club stories are available for two weeks only, giving members an incentive to check in each week (or every other one) to download the new offerings.
A lot of the mystery stories are traditional, in the classic mode, originally published early in the twentieth century. But in June, Wildside began including a contemporary story with the mysteries each week. It is these modern stories with which I'm most familiar because I'm the person who's been choosing them. In the spring, Wildside's publisher reached out to me, asking if I would head up this series of stories, finding reprints I thought were really good. He's labeled this imprint Barb Goffman Presents. (That was a big surprise--a nice one--because I thought I was going to be solely behind the scenes.)
Since then I've read more short stories than I have in years, trying to find ones I love and think would be a good fit for Black Cat readers. (Stories originally published by Wildside Press are off the table.) When I find a story I think would work, I reach out to the author. It makes me feel like Santa Claus, which is pretty cool.
This work has given me an excuse to read many of the anthologies that I bought over the years but never found the time to read. And it's enabled me to share with readers stories that I think are special but might have been overlooked when they came out.
The first story I presented was "Debbie and Bernie and Belle," written by my fellow SleuthSayer John Floyd and published in 2008 in the Strand Magazine. Last week's story, which is still available to paid club members for a few more days, is "The Greatest Criminal Mind Ever" by Frank Cook, originally published in 2009 in Quarry (Level Best Books). And this week's story, which has been chosen as the week's free story for paid and unpaid members, is "The Kiss of Death" by Rebecca Pawel, originally published in 2007 in A Hell of a Woman (Busted Flush Press). Pawel's story is set in the New York City tango community and is a delight to read.
If you want to check out the ebook club, go on over to https://bcmystery.com/. And happy reading!

10 August 2020

The Writer Diaries

Joseph Pittman
Joseph Pittman is a friend from about the time we opened bookstore in Austin, called Mysteries and More. I was writing a column for Mystery Scene magazine called Southwest Scenes. I had also started going to Mystery Cons in order to meet authors, agents, booksellers, editors, publishers in person, because I used their information for my column.

Joe Pittman was one of the big name editors I telephoned on a regular basis. He would tell me which books were ready for release. Joe was always helpful, giving me reliable info and we usually spent a few extra minutes chitchatting. We finally met in person in St Louis, MO when Bob Randisi put together and hosted a PWA CON, the first ever conference for private eye writers.

I knew Joe had left publishing because he wanted to write and write he does. He's published more than a few books. We reconnected on FB a couple of years ago. Then, a little over a year ago, Joe and his husband Steve adopted Shadow. And Shadow, a black lab youngster, soon learned to type on Daddy Joe's computer. Shadow began a diary. Talked about settling into a new home with a nice back yard to play in and how he's learned new words and how to play with other families, making friends with other dogs. And especially learning about love. Daddy Joe compiled Shadow's diaries into a book, and Daddy Steve did the cover artwork. It's a small but very entertaining and charming book for all animal lovers.  I highly recommend it.
— Jan Grape

Joseph Pittman is the author of over 40 novels in various genres under his own name and pen name Adam Carpenter. He has written comic crime, noir, small-town sweetness, intrigue, and erotica. His current series features private detective Jimmy McSwain.
Shadow is a beautiful 2-year-old Black Lab / Greyhound mix who has lots to say. His first book, The Shadow Diaries, has just been published. Funny, poignant, insightful, it’s a full-year in the life of a rescue dog. Follow him on Instagram at theshadowdiariesbook.

The Writer Diaries – Volume 32

by Joseph Pittman
Hey, Pittman here. It’s midnight while I write this. The moon owns the night. There’s a pretty dame walking down a dark avenue. A handsome lad in a fedora trails her. My eyes don’t judge either. They just wonder what each is hiding. Probably truth.

Whoa, what’s going on? Have we finally gotten to a diary entry that focuses on the classic American detective novel? Is it noir week? Yeah, sweetheart, it sure is.

You can do a wayback and think about Chandler, Hammett, Cain. They created a genre steeped in language people hadn’t read before. Grit, gumption, a different way of seeking justice. I’ve read ‘em but was never involved in any reissues of their iconic novels.

But I did get to work with some of the giants of the mystery world. it’s interesting to think how they helped shape me as a writer. So, I’m going to focus on four authors, some you may have heard of, all who bring a unique spin to the crime genre. What they have in common? They always let you know whodunit.

I’m gonna start with the Grandmaster. The one and only Mickey Spillane. Back before publishers did hard/soft deals, back before all the mergers, a hardcover publisher would sell the softcover rights to a paperback publisher. And one of the most loyal arrangements was that between E.P. Dutton and Signet. Their star author? The great Mickey Spillane, creator of Mike Hammer. I, The Jury put all three on the map. Hammer was tough. Spillane’s language was hardened poetry.

In the 1990s, Mickey, after a silent period, resurfaced with a new novel, Black Alley, the return of Mike Hammer. I had the privilege of working on this book, but more than that…I got to meet Mickey. He was being named Grandmaster from the Mystery Writers of America, their highest honor. Mickey came to the office that day for a champagne toast.

I remember him telling me I wasn’t born when Hammer was taking his first punch. It was the perfect introduction. He’d brought along with him “the dame,” a lovely woman who had starred with him in those Lite Beer commercials in the 70s. Then we all went to the Edgar Awards banquet, NAL having secured a table to celebrate our Grandmaster. I couldn’t believe I was his editor.

But I experienced that feeling a lot over my career, which brings me to a twist in the noir. Lawrence Block (another Grandmaster) is a gentleman, a scholar, and a bit of a schemer! I’d known his Matthew Scudder detective series, but he also had a lighter side. Enter Bernie Rhodenbarr, bookseller and thief, into my life. Dutton/Signet, now fully merged, was offered the opportunity to revive this comic crime series, starting with the first book in ten years, The Burglar Who Traded Ted Williams.

This series became one of my favorite adventures in publishing, and certainly gave me some credibility in the mystery community I loved being a part of. We ended up republishing the first five books, in both hardcover and paperback. Then we published four more new titles. The Burglar in the Rye features a dedication…to me. A treasured moment when I saw that.

To say Bernie inspired my Todd Gleason character is an understatement.

Then there’s this guy, Max Allan Collins. Another genius of detective fiction. I first learned of him when I worked at Bantam. A book called Stolen Away, a historical mystery about the Lindbergh kidnapping. Later, when at NAL, we acquired his Nathan Heller series and went on to publish six titles. Nate was always getting involved in mysteries of the past, helping to solve the unsolvable. His attention to detail, his cleverness, but ultimately his prose, absorbed me.

Lastly, I want to talk about the Gatekeeper of all this history with his devotion to detective fiction. Robert J. Randisi. He is the founder of the Private Eye Writers of America, which awards the Shamus for the best in American detection. I did several anthologies with Bob, memorably a collection of Shamus-winning stories called The Eyes Still Have It. Randisi has published so many books in so many genres, it’s hard to keep track. If I learned anything from him: stay prolific. Finish writing a book, there’s another waiting behind it.

The detective novel is quintessential American. It’s about mood, about voice, it’s about characters who might have been damaged by life, men and women who are looking for solutions on the streets. But ultimately finding their redemption within their own hearts. Motive isn’t just something to uncover in a suspect. It’s something to find within your hero.

At the PWA conference in St. Louis in 1999, I was surprised and humbled to receive a plaque from Bob. “Friends of PWA.” I still am, and I’m grateful to these four talented authors for taking me on their journeys. Truthfully, my P.I. Jimmy McSwain doesn’t exist without any of them.

Thanks for reading.


09 August 2020

Nipping it in the bud because old men cry.

In February, an elderly man was collecting recyclables in San Francisco when another man threatened him and taunted him. A video shows the elderly man crying while onlookers laugh at him. 

In March, a man yelled at an elderly man suffering from dementia in a convenience store in Vancouver. Then the elderly man was shoved by the other man, he fell and hit his head. 

Both of the elderly men attacked were of Asian descent and, in each case, the men attacking them hurled racist remarks at them. Both of these elderly and innocent men were victims of the heinous crime that’s on the rise: hate crime. 

In the United States and Canada, hate crimes are increasing  Although the number of hate crimes in Canada remain lower than in the United States, we don’t know the actual numbers in either country: hate crimes remain underreported in both countries and, because hate crimes are defined differently in various regions of each country, counting cases accurately is difficult.

Crimes of hate thrive and grow in times of intolerance and certainly we are living through difficult times. Many of the attacks against those of Asian heritage are accompanied by accusations of somehow being blamed for COVID-19 infections. 

Social media is one of the main vehicles that transports racism through society and fuels hate crimes. One tool Canada has to fight this is illustrated by the conviction of James Sears. 

In Aug 2019, the Canadian editor, James Sears, was sentenced to one year in jail for “wilful promotion of hatred against women and Jews..[the judge] lamented the fact that he couldn’t give Sears 18 months, saying the circumstances were more severe than a 1990 case where a 22-year-old self-described racist received a year in jail for antisemitic graffiti including spray painting swastikas on a Toronto synagogue.” 

Canadian hate laws do limit free expression. David Butt has an elegant discussion of this:

“Does freedom of expression as legally defined in Canada provide the right tools for expression challenges in a fragmented and largely angry 21st century social media world?
Canadian freedom of expression law, like so many things Canadian, embodies compromise… our constitution protects not only free expression, but multiculturalism and equality as well. So to read the constitution holistically, we cannot permit one protected freedom to undermine other rights and freedoms enjoying equal status."

As we all traverse this world of social media and the spread of hate based on race, religion and sexual orientation, it remains an open question whether Canada’s compromise of balancing the right to freedom of speech with other rights, will curtail hate crimes. I won’t dwell on the legal problems of enforcing the laws Canada has, the limit of those laws and the complications of all this. Why?

What I will do is join the many voices condemning hate crimes. There can be no civil society when old men are humiliated to the point of tears and then are simply laughed at, when people are spit on, beaten and humiliated simply for their race, religion or who they love. The internet has become a place to spread hate in dark corners that radiate out to infect us all. 

We can prosecute hate crimes after they happen, but we must find ways to stop the propagation of hate in the first place. Some social media platforms are trying to manage hate speech online. However, curbing hate crimes with laws or even regulations on social media may feel like a Sisyphean task and many have asked why bother because the problem is too large? Others ask why do this and curb free speech?

I ask - would we say this about any other crime? Would we say there are too many murders, so why bother trying to stop them? Would we say that trying to stop physical assault may lead us to also stop holding hands and hugging? Surely, we can distinguish racist or homophobic rants from gardening advice. Again, I'm not a lawyer and know that these issues can be very difficult. However, as a physician, I can tell you that treating head injuries in an old man thrown to the ground can also be difficult - but you would be hard pressed to find a doctor who walked away from that task. 

So, it's time we found solutions to hate crimes and the first step is to take them seriously enough to come up with solutions.

08 August 2020

Crime Scene Comix Case 2020-08-010, Invisibility

Shifty, sly miscreant as he is, has a clear conscience… of sorts. Let’s visit Shift on the job.

We show another clip from our criminally favorite cartoonist, Future Thought channel of YouTube. Check it out.

That’s today’s crime cinema. Hope you enjoyed the show. Be sure to visit Future Thought YouTube channel.

07 August 2020

Nailed it

After four hours, the man leans back in the uncomfortable metal chair and says, "I buried him in field behind my house." I sit back and let it rush through me, resist looking at the video camera. The man just confessed. We have some physical evidence. We have two witnesses who put him with the victim. We have a decent case and now we nailed him. A confession. The DA loves confessions. The interview continues as the killer gives the gruesome details and I'm on a high, a rush. We nailed him.

Didn't happen often but when it did it was such great feeling of accomplishment.

We nailed the case shut.

The rush isn't the same but when I nail a story or a novel, it's a great feeling of accomplishment. It doesn't happen often. I was taught early to write the best story or the best novel I can write. Never dare to be adequate. It works and when I go back and re-read the story after a number of drafts and see it's complete, it's a good feeling. When I go back and re-read a story or novel and feel the tingles on my neck, feel my heartbeat rise, I know. I nailed it.

A pause and I submit the story and hope it finds a home, but that's a different part of the writing life. Selection is so subjective. The story might find a home in a big magazine, might find a home in a small magazine, might go homeless until the right anthology creeps along or until my publisher puts it up on Amazon.com. But I nailed it.

During this pandemic I, and many of my writing friends, have written a lot of fiction. Get it written, then get it write. Lots of drafts, lots of polishing until the story or novel shines. Not all of them bring goosebumps when it's all over but when one does – it is a little treasure.

It's a great feeling. Time to find the cats and pet each, which can be pleasant or unpleasant, depending on the cat's mood. I can brag to the cats but not to anyone else. The story speaks to humans in its own voice.

But I nailed it.

Such a rush.

Then back to work.

That's all for now.